Fix Public Schools? Start with Unions

Member Group : Jerry Shenk

Despite facing a $1.9 billion budget deficit , Pennsylvania’s union-supported incoming governor has promised more money for public education. Predictably, his priorities are misplaced.

There are many good teachers in Pennsylvania’s public schools. But good teachers were not created by teachers unions. Capable, conscientious teachers are good in spite of their unions.

Three years ago, Pennsylvania’s state legislature considered The Opportunity Scholarship and Educational Improvement Tax Credit Act.

Intended to create education vouchers for kids trapped in failing schools, the bill was opposed by teachers unions whose political influence — and politicians whose campaign funds – stood to be diminished by its passage. Union campaign contributions won. The bill died.

Educational reform policies are difficult to enact because passing reform legislation requires enough public officials and union management to care about other people’s children.

If we want to restore learning and stop schools from being union-dominated, politically-correct, progressive havens, we must endeavor to remove politics from public education.

David Horowitz wrote: "If Republicans did to minority children what the Democrats do through their education policies, they would be denounced as the worst racists on earth.

But in Pennsylvania, there was bipartisan opposition to the reform bill. Members from both parties placed a higher priority on the interests of teachers unions than on the children and taxpayers in their districts.
Too many legislators followed the money, when the money should have followed the kids.

Teachers unions are large, dues-rich organizations with real political clout. While expressing concern about children, union interests are limited to their adult, dues-paying constituencies.

Unions incessantly demand more money, insisting teachers are underpaid and overworked even though most have fifteen weeks off per year and are teaching fewer classes containing fewer students than they did five decades ago.
In 1960, the student-teacher ratio in public schools was 25.8:1. It’s now at an historic low of around 15:1.

Nationwide, in 50 years, teacher headcount has increased by three and one-half times the rate of increase in K-12 enrollment.

If schools had hired only enough teachers to keep up with enrollment while maintaining 1960s class sizes and instructional standards, competent teachers could be paid far more than they now receive.

But, regardless of compensation levels, fewer dues-paying teachers is anathema to union bosses.

There are more than 3.3 million teachers employed in American public education, plus as many or more administrators, assistants, aides, counselors, social workers, psychologists, therapists, secretaries, nurses, coaches, custodians, cafeteria workers, school bus drivers and other support staff, some of whom belong to unions, too.

In effect, American public education is a huge adult jobs and union dues-generation program costing taxpayers unimaginable sums of money.
Despite massive expenditures, American kids who once led the world in academic achievement have fallen far behind in world rankings in math and science.

It’s true that parental interest and involvement have declined in many districts; cultural influences interfere with learning; disciplinary problems exist almost everywhere; and mandatory mainstreaming lowers the common denominator.

But, while acknowledging these influences, teachers unions must be held accountable for their contributions to educational problems.

Unions reject the argument that principals and school boards should be able to dismiss incompetent teachers. Union protections make firing bad teachers nearly impossible, arguing that, without contract protections, teachers would be at the mercy of their employers – the same as working Pennsylvanians holding private sector jobs.

Unions’ detachment from the practical realities of private-sector employment explains how the public schools they control can fail to educate children:
If a teacher can’t be dismissed for doing bad work, what’s the incentive to do good work?
Poor results and a lousy economy mandate that, before funding increases, Pennsylvania must address public education costs: curricula, teacher and administration headcount, pay, benefits and unsustainable pensions.

We should eliminate tenure, institute merit pay and end seniority protections that prevent public schools from improving their teacher pools.
By encouraging school choice, vouchers and charter schools, unions can be decoupled from their near-monopoly of public education, public officials can be removed from the corrupting influence of union campaign cash, and school districts can determine their own futures by competing in open education markets.

Competition improves every other product and service Pennsylvanians buy. It will improve public education, too – for the children.